Hawaii’s rising movement against genetically modified farming has seen successes in Kauai County and Hawaii County, but the latest proposal in Maui County will test how far residents are willing to go to get rid of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The Maui County Council — which represents Maui, Molokai and Lanai — recently began considering the county’s first-ever citizens initiative, which seeks to temporarily ban genetically modified farming until biotechnology companies pay for a study to analyze its health effects. Critics say the proposal could have a huge negative economic impact in the county, where hundreds of people are employed by the biotechnology industry.

The voter initiative is significantly more restrictive than the regulations approved in Kauai County and Hawaii County last year. Kauai’s ordinance focuses on increasing disclosure requirements for biotechnology companies about their use of pesticides and genetically engineered seeds, while the Big Island’s ban on genetically modified farming exempts all existing crops.

Monsanto fields  Molokai

Monsanto fields on Molokai. The island of Lanai is seen in the background. (Photo by PF Bentley/Civil Beat)

In contrast, the Maui County proposal would ban most of the farming done by both Monsanto Company and Mycogen Seeds, an affiliate of DowAgroSciences, in addition to that of other farmers who rely on genetically modified seeds.

The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism doesn’t keep specific data on the biotechnology agriculture industry in Hawaii, but data from Monsanto Company and Mycogen Seeds indicates that the county could lose millions of dollars in tax revenue and face a spike in unemployment if the companies were to close their genetically modified farming operations.

Monsanto Company farms on Maui and Molokai and, at any given time, 60 to 90 percent of its fields include genetically modified crops.

The company employs 540 people in the county and pays them a total of about $17.8 million annually. The company also paid about $3.5 million in taxes last year, and has invested about $100 million in infrastructure, land and improvements, said the company’s spokeswoman Carol Riemann.

Mycogen Seeds, an affiliate of Indiana-based Dow AgroSciences, farms about 400 acres of seed corn on Molokai and employs 33 full-time employees, as well as 65 temporary and seasonal workers.

“It may ultimately lead us to seriously consider shutting down our operations on Molokai.” — Adolph Helm, Mycogen Seeds spokesman

The company pays an average of $400,000 in sales and use taxes and $12,000 in property tax to the county each year, said spokesman Adolph Helm.

Helm said the company is still evaluating how the initiative would affect its operations, given that 80 percent of its fields involve genetically modified seeds.

“It may ultimately lead us to seriously consider shutting down our operations on Molokai,” he said in an email.

State economist Eugene Tian said the worst-case scenario, if all employees of both companies were laid off, could raise the county’s unemployment rate from 4.7 to 5.5 percent.

The state unemployment rate is 4.4 percent, according to May data from the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

Long-term Health Benefits Cited

Mark Sheehan, a spokesman for the SHAKA Movement, the organization pushing the voter initiative, acknowledges the potential loss of jobs but said the movement is more concerned with long-term benefits.

“In the short run, there will be economic consequences,” he said. “In the long run, the health consequences are vastly greater.”

Sheehan claimed autism and cancer are potential side effects of GMO farming and its associated pesticide use.

“They could continue to employ those people with just a different type of agriculture.” — Mark Sheehan, SHAKA Movement spokesman

State and global regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization have found no specific harmful health results from genetically modified food, but many Hawaii residents have said they or their family members are suffering from ailments that they attribute to living near fields of genetically engineered crops or eating genetically modified food.

Sheehan also said the companies don’t have to downsize or shut down their operations because of the voter initiative.

“They could continue to employ those people with just a different type of agriculture,” he said. “They can find other ways of raising crops. They can grow local crops for local consumption.”

He said the group has been searching for alternative employment for biotechnology companies’ employees, should it become needed.

Direct and Indirect Costs

The Maui County Council referred the bill last week to a committee on intergovernmental affairs, where a disclosure measure related to biotechnology companies stalled earlier this year. The Council has about two months to grant outright approval to the initiative (an unlikely move); otherwise, it will appear on the November ballot.

Local economist Paul Brewbaker is so appalled by the opposition to genetically modified farming that he has written a white paper on the economic impact of biotechnology companies in Hawaii and plans to release it after it is peer-reviewed.

Brewbaker, who has previously offered to work as a consultant for the biotechnology companies and has ties to the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture, said the worst-case scenario loss of about 600 jobs in Maui County could lead to $200 million in lost annual output and the indirect loss of hundreds of more jobs.

“What ill-informed Luddites propose in Maui County will, intentionally, generate a material, adverse impact on Maui County employment and income, and on economic activity generally,” he said in an email.

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